[Her Dad asks] "Do you want me to come with you?""The actual dialogue here is ordinary. Meanwhile, the middle paragraph – the so-called "supporting" narration – is doing most of the work of making this interesting." That's amazing.
"Emma? Everyone says that an author should put the information in the dialogue if possible, and that only unskilled authors rely on the supporting narration."
Yeah, it's like the unwanted step-sister in writing. "Modern authors are writing great supporting narration."
"That's hard to believe."
"But true. It's –"
"No one wants the long story, Emma."
I like the long story, but I give in with a familiar feeling of defeat.
Good Supporting Narrationby Emma Sohan
Normal supporting narration makes the dialogue more like a movie – it helps us see the scene, tells us what emotions the characters are expressing nonverbally, and tells us how things are said.
Um, that's a lot of telling. You can probably guess why supporting narration gets disdain. But that disdain can lead authors (like me!) to miss an important part of writing. For some authors, the supporting narration is as long and important as the dialogue.
Complex EmotionsRich supporting narration often contains complicated emotions and feelings, or combinations of emotions and feelings.
How do you do that?" I asked in amazed irritation. (Twilight)If you are trying to show your character has some relatively simple emotion, like anger, you have choices – you can try to show it in the dialogue; you can try to show it in nonverbal cues. But you aren't showing something complicated, like amazed irritation – pretty much your only choice is describing it.
"Sure?" she asks, her casual attitude flickering."That's all?" (My Best Friend, Maybe)Does flickering casualness even exist? But, if action junkies can enjoy implausible action, us emotion junkies can enjoy difficult complicated emtions and feelings.
The man's voice is higher, more agitated now. I slow down my voice, like I'm talking to one of my brothers when he's coming unglued. "Okay. Help is coming. What's your name?" (Girls Don't Fly, page 165)A lot of care is going into describing her voice.
Meta-DialoguePeople don't just talk – they interact. They have agendas. The supporting narration can describe what is happening in the dialogue.
"No," she said in a voice that implied it should be obvious, even to a new arrival like me. (Twilight)
"Apparently none of the girls here are good-looking enough for him." She sniffed, a clear case of sour grapes. (Twilight, page 22)
"Yes," I said again, blushing. I hoped that detail wouldn't register in her thoughts. (Twilight, page 205)They can also have feelings and opinions about what they just said. Describing the incredibly beautiful and handsome Cullen family:
"They are . . . very nice-looking." I struggled with the conspicuous understatement. (Twilight)Irony is especially interesting.
"Um, uh" I said articulately. (The Truth Commission)Her irony, either to herself or the reader, shows an awareness of what she really thinks of her comment (and an ability to be somewhat philosophical about it).
The UnsaidUm, if you're doing dialogue, it's painfully easy to show what someone is thinking -- you put it in the dialogue. But not everyone says what they are thinking. The supporting narration can show what a person is thinking but not saying, making it a second channel into their thoughts.
"I was talking to Sadie Pepper," I say.
"I don't mind. I want you to be happy here."
"Um . . . so . . . We spend a lot of time together."
ExamplesStephanie Meyer, in Twilight, consistently adds rich supporting narration.
"What's up? I said as I was unlocking the door. I wasn't paying attention to the uncomfortable edge in his voice, so his next words took me by surprise.I admire how much John Green can show in his dialogue. But he is perfectly willing to give the reader a careful explanation of an interaction:
There are a number of ways to establish someone's approximate survival expectations without actually asking. I used the classic: "So, are you in school?" Generally, your parents pull you out of school at some point if they expect you to bite it.Note how much we can understand of the last line of dialogue – because of the preceding explanation, the line is short and powerful.
The following, one of my efforts, has meta-dialogue in the middle and ends with something unsaid.
I look down at the table. "My mother left me when I was seven months old."
"Emma? Did you really just use Twilight as an example of good writing? What were you thinking?"
My normally perky attitude flickers with anger. "Stepanie Meyer writes great supporting narration."